An Avengers project from the team behind Tomb Raider should be one of the biggest projects in the video game world, and in certain measures, that’s exactly what Marvel’s Avengers looks to be after a few hours with this weekend’s beta. And yet, I came out of my days-long session with the ambitious game with some questions and a few uncomfortable answers. With about a month till launch, it feels like the assembly of the Avengers is still in progress.
However, it’s only fair to point out that this weekend’s Marvel’s Avengers beta was genuinely built to catch problems in the game. Fans have sometimes become accustomed to a beta basically being a free preview of a game they’re looking forward to, and while Avengers serves that crowd too, it primarily serves the team behind the game. My Friday night struggles to connect in any multiplayer sessions were, apparently, universal, but smoother Saturday night play helped me get a clearer picture of the game’s intentions.
Let’s start with what’s good. The basic premise of loading into a lobby with up to three friends, each selecting from an ever-growing roster of free heroes, is simply awesome. The devs have spoken about wanting to take a familiar cast and remix it to fit their own story plans, and that shines right away as Hulk, Iron Man, Black Widow, Captain America, and Thor drop into the tech-driven dystopian tale. But the front-and-center inclusion of Kamala Khan, aka Ms. Marvel, should help players eventually distinguish Marvel’s Avengers from its movie counterparts.
Cosmetic unlocks pull from almost a century of Marvel history, which means each character has a wealth of options and variety to choose from. This is the sort of nerdy detail that has no gameplay ramifications but feels absolutely critical anyway, and thankfully Crystal Dynamics nails this above all else. It’s obvious Marvel opened up the vault for the team, and the results are a comic book reader’s dream.
Combat is, for the most part, enjoyable as well. The way the game must balance each hero’s abilities is going to take a bit to get used to. After all, a three-hit combo from Hulk and another from Hawkeye shouldn’t do the same amount of damage, but if character levels and power levels are equal, it seems they will. Comic book purists will likely take issue with this, but others will be totally content with the game’s Arkham-inspired punch-and-parry system. It flows well and each character’s skill tree is deep, offering pause-worthy decisions regarding which upgrades to prioritize over others.
Like Destiny and Anthem before it, Marvel’s Avengers plans to keep players around for the long haul with a loot grind, but in the beta, Avengers reminds me more of the latter. While the idea of swappable loot and visually mismatched items is at odds with the distinctive costumes of superheroes like the Avengers, Crystal Dynamics deftly sidesteps that issue by turning all gear into equippable holograms that you never actually see outside of the gear screen. That lets the breadth of cool costumes keep the spotlight.
Still, I can’t shake the feeling this loot mechanic was forced upon Crystal Dynamics. There are fewer gear slots than in comparable games, and though the bonuses seemed strong — things like a 7.5% chance to inflict cryo damage with the right gauntlets — it just feels out of place here, and I say that as someone who very much enjoys loot games like The Division.
Marvel’s Avengers further stumbles with lackluster level design that seems preoccupied with wide, mostly flat hubs to hide loot in. Levels don’t feel authored or important. Again, punching and kicking robots feels good, but none of these missions went anywhere interesting. Repetitive objectives had me smashing up X number of transformers, defeating Y number of enemies, or defending areas like in a round of Domination. I thought a level labeled as a boss battle would deliver, but it ended with my merely beating up a much bigger robot than the hundreds I’d dispatched to that point.
Maybe the beta can’t reveal some of the more epic boss battles to come, but if the story doesn’t pull enough familiar faces into view, it’s going to miss the mark. The single-player levels are meant to feel like the most handcrafted and intimate experiences, but there are too few of those levels in the beta to serve as a commendable proof of concept.
The game also doesn’t look as good as you’d expect from a late-era Marvel project with major publisher support. Perhaps the next-gen versions will help it really shine, but for now things like the subpar outdoor lighting and bland silvery-blue menus make anything but the hundreds of costumes feel lacking.
Collectively, there are things I definitely like from Marvel’s Avengers, but they’re outnumbered by the things that concern me. To date, few loot-based games have come storming out of the gate, and Avengers seems destined to follow that trend. Having said that, there is clearly a foundation to build on here, and while it’s not the only issue, more interesting levels would go further than anything to help this game live up to its name.
Right now, I expect the Marvel’s Avengers launch to feel a bit like the end of Infinity War: All hope is lost, some players may believe, but with a committed effort, there’s every reason to expect this live-service game can assemble into something special and give its incoming player base a more satisfying Endgame.